The COVID-19 pandemic has caused staggering loss of life and, over the course of just a few weeks, triggered an unprecedented global shutdown. The scale of the disaster and the astonishing pace of its advance have underscored the urgent need for accurate, informative reporting about the new coronavirus. It has also tested the endurance of the journalists who are reporting the unfolding catastrophe, whether they are veteran health and science reporters or relative newcomers. “Nothing that has come before in the infectious-diseases beat is remotely as huge as this story,” says Helen Branswell, longtime infectious-diseases reporter at STAT. For many reporters, the coronavirus beat has become nearly a 24/7 job.
To document some of the challenges that reporting on COVID-19 has raised, The Open Notebook invited five journalists who are reporting from the front lines in various capacities to spend about a week reflecting on their experiences, including how they’re finding sources and keeping up on the daily torrent of new developments; the skills they’ve found most essential for pandemic reporting; and their efforts to take care of their own health and understand their role in the developing crisis. “I think about my very, very small part in all of this, and about trying to do the best work I can,” says Mark Johnson, health and science reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “If I do my work well, I hope people will know more and be less afraid.”
From March 25–31, five reporters participated in our “COVID-19 Reporting Diaries” project:
Helen Branswell, infectious-diseases reporter at STAT.
Erin Garcia de Jesus, intern at Science News. *
Mark Johnson, health and science reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Antonio Martínez Ron, freelance science journalist based in Madrid, Spain.
Jane Qiu, freelance science journalist based in Beijing, China.
* Editors’ note: Between the time she took part in this piece and the time we published it, Erin Garcia de Jesus was hired as a staff writer at Science News. Congratulations, Erin!
DAY 1: March 25, 2020
What strategies have you used for finding suitable sources for your stories?
Garcia de Jesus: I have a background in virology, so in the beginning I reached out to people I knew in the field and asked them who was working on coronaviruses. I also already followed plenty of virologists on Twitter. But as time wore on, many of those same people were appearing in almost every news outlet and it was time to expand my list.
I found some of the sources from articles they’ve written for The Conversation. I’m always reading new papers, both those published in peer-reviewed journals and ones posted to preprint servers like bioRxiv.org. I also listen to the podcast This Week in Virology—which has been doing special episodes just to answer listeners’ questions—to see if the hosts mention any new names. And whenever I do an interview, I’m always asking, “Who else should I be talking to?”
Johnson: I’ve been very lucky. I had a fellowship in 2016-2017, where I spent about 18 months writing and researching stories about zoonotic diseases (those that go from animals to humans) and the hunt for the next pandemic. I worked with three exceptionally talented Marquette University journalism students: Devi Shastri, McKenna Oxenden, and Ryan Patterson. Marquette and the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting paid for reporting trips to Kenya (to investigate human-animal connections in the Nairobi slums), Uganda (to do the same in a huge national park), and Brazil (to document the worst outbreak of yellow fever in the country’s history). So I started with a number of sources who knew me from the stories a few years ago and were willing to help when I reconnected for COVID-19.
The other main strategy is that I’ve tried to read as many of the preprints and papers coming out as I can and to email the authors of the most interesting ones. When they’re busy, I beg. Please, can you spare five minutes on the phone? No? What about three questions via email? As far as I’m concerned it doesn’t matter in an emergency whether the interviews are in person, on the phone, or by email. When I have the luxury of time, in-person interviews are always best. But I don’t have time. No one does. And what matters most to my readers—I think, I hope—is that I pass on to them the most reliable, current information I can.
Martínez: As a science journalist I had many previous contacts with some scientists and the main scientific institutions in Spain. During the first days of the crisis, I contacted virologists, epidemiologists, and other experts through their institutions and, in many cases, at their personal phone numbers, WhatsApp, social media, or by email.
After March 10th, when the Spanish authorities closed schools and universities, there was a period of confusion and many of my sources avoided talking, and some of them did it only off the record, particularly epidemiologists who [in their comments] admitted that they may have failed or were very upset.
I followed what international experts were writing, but I preferred to contact Spanish scientists, as they were working in our particular situation. Every country had specific problems in those days, so it was especially difficult to get opinions from other countries. But I spoke to many science journalists from Italy, France, and Germany, to know what their governments were doing during the crisis.
Qiu: While I have a PhD in molecular biology and worked as a postdoc in neuroscience for six years, I rarely covered life sciences and had written only a handful of articles on infectious diseases before the coronavirus outbreaks took place in Wuhan last December. But the two top epidemiologists I already knew were instrumental in my understanding the complexity of the situation and in locating other sources. After that, it was a matter of keeping a keen eye on news development—I used to spend an insane amount of time every day scanning and reading articles published by dozens of Chinese and English media outlets—as well as a torrent of academic papers coming out in top journals such as The Lancet and The New England Journal of Medicine.
But my biggest story so far came from searching academic papers on bat-borne coronaviruses on Google Scholar. Paper after paper turned up one research team led by one scientist: virologist Shi Zhengli of the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Then a quick search on PubMed helped trace her virus-hunting work in bat caves across China since 2004 in the aftermath of SARS—including her seminal Nature paper in 2013 showing that bats were the natural reservoir of the coronavirus that caused SARS. Then I realized that she was also the scientist who led the effort to determine within a week that a novel coronavirus was the cause of the new disease. I could see the story had come to a full circle.
DAY 2: March 26, 2020
What skills do you feel have been most essential to your work in covering this pandemic?
Branswell: Nothing that has come before in the infectious-diseases beat is remotely as huge as this story. But having worked for years on stories about infectious diseases outbreaks, I have a grounding in disease dynamics that really helps me understand what I’m watching unfold—and a sense of what might be coming next.
Garcia de Jesus: I remember following the recent Ebola and Zika outbreaks as a graduate student. While the science was rapid, I feel like that pace has nothing on the speed of science in this pandemic. I don’t think I’d still be covering it if I didn’t have my science background or good time-management skills. New papers are coming out basically daily, thanks to preprint servers—a fact that has its pros and cons—which means I’m constantly reading new research and trying to figure out what is worth covering. It’s difficult to wade through all that information on top of writing non-COVID-19-related stories, but I’m glad that I can fall back on my virology skills to help me figure out which papers present the strongest evidence. I do wish I’d been more organized at the start of the outbreak and set up an Excel file with paper summaries, though. The science is flying so fast that I’m sure I’ve forgotten some papers!
Johnson: I’m willing to read a lot of medical and scientific papers as carefully as I can, and then ask questions about the stuff I can’t understand—which is usually quite a lot.
I’m willing to try for interviews with anyone. I know some of the people I call and email might feel more inclined to talk if I said I was calling from The New York Times. But I tell myself that doesn’t matter. At the end of the day, I’m responsible for giving readers in Wisconsin the best information I can get. You don’t know if a Nobel Prize–winner will return your call or email unless you try. And if they won’t talk on the phone, maybe they’ll answer questions by email. When I send an email I try to make it personal and human. I tell them very briefly what I’m writing about, what papers I’m reading and searching for, and the kind of questions I want to ask. I also try to include a line explaining what things are like here in Milwaukee.
Qiu: In such a fast-moving event, critical thinking and independent judgement are more important than ever. Don’t take anything for granted. Don’t believe everything you read on social media and traditional news outlets—including those that appear to reflect the majority’s view. Don’t report what seemingly credible scientists tell you without independent scrutiny. Certainly don’t do second-hand reporting without independent verification.
There have been massive amounts of misinformation and disinformation floating around in many parts of the world, including China where I’m based. Separating the wheat from the chaff is one of the most important skills in covering this pandemic. To do that, we must be able to identify the right experts.
One is not necessarily a right expert just because s/he is a scientist. A molecular biologist is unlikely to have the specific knowledge and insight to appreciate the nuances and complexity of epidemiological studies. Within epidemiology, there are also sub-disciplines that have different standards and methodologies. A nutritional epidemiologist, for instance, would not be an appropriate source to comment on studies on infectious-disease epidemiology.
I’ve been writing about the pandemic for U.S. and U.K. publications from Beijing since late January. It’s not really a skill set, but being Chinese definitely helps. So does the ability to speak and read Chinese and to appreciate the Chinese culture and history at a deep level.
DAY 3: March 27, 2020
Knowing that this pandemic will be a marathon, not a sprint, what have been some of the most important forms of self-care that you’ve been seeking out for yourself?
Garcia de Jesus: Before we all started working from home, it was easier to shut off at the end of the day and not think about work. But now that my office is my couch, I’m finding it much harder to stop. And it’s even worse because I was always paying attention to viruses, even before this all began. I can’t pretend I have a perfect system yet, but I’m working on it.
I’m trying to separate my day by riding my bike in the morning to simulate my commute to work and then going for a walk at night to wind down, usually all while listening to an audiobook. Then my husband and I usually watch a TV show while we eat dinner. (We’re addicted to a few Netflix series from Spain, which help me practice my Spanish.) I also have a nightly reading routine before going to bed. My go-to books are usually fiction—most often a teen novel that I can read quickly. I do my best not to touch my phone to check the news after I start reading!
Branswell: I’m trying to get out for bike rides or walks whenever possible, though it’s not frequent enough. Avoiding alcohol. Touching base frequently with family and friends, most of whom live long distances from me. I’m also deliberately choosing not to watch cable TV. It seems counterintuitive for a journalist but it amps me up so much it’s hard to focus on what I need to do during the day and would keep me from being able to sleep at night. I’m trying to find the focus to read fiction. Struggling with that.
Johnson: I cover science, but I have a spiritual side too. I try to maintain both without forcing them to conflict with one another. So, to be perfectly honest, when I’m running these days, I think about the terrible things people have done to each other and to the planet. I wonder if God can forgive us. I know that these are very un-journalistic thoughts. But running, for me, is a time when I get to be human first and look at the world from that perspective rather than from the narrower perspective of a reporter.
I think about God being at the bedsides of the sick, with their families and with the loved ones of those who have died, giving all of them comfort and hope. I think of God being beside the doctors, nurses, and medical staff as they try to save lives, and with the researchers as they search for vaccines and treatments. I think about my very, very small part in all of this, and about trying to do the best work I can. If I do my work well, I hope people will know more and be less afraid. When I finish running, showering, dressing, and making a pot of coffee, I’m ready to be a reporter again.
Martínez: To be honest, during the first three weeks I didn’t self-care very much. Although I wanted to have some rest, there was too much news I had to follow. At the same time, I had many personal issues to attend, as family calls, so it was even a more stressful situation. Professionally, it has been really difficult to stop, as if you do it you miss new data and it gets very hard to get back on that “train.” Now I am still trying to stop for a couple of days, but I can’t stop at all. Today, Saturday, I have two more interviews. Let’s see if I can do it on Sunday.
Qiu: I haven’t been doing very well on that front. Until a week ago, I had been on overdrive for more than two months. I’ve done almost nothing else other than reading and writing about the epidemic. I’ve thrown the idea of work-life balance totally out of the window. There was a time I was so wired up I couldn’t sleep for or eat for days. Then I crashed and was bed-bound for nearly a week (with no COVID-19 symptoms). Now I’m better but still drained. I feel I’m running out of steam, but I still need to write at least four articles. I’ve just had the most unproductive week—due to my physical and mental exhaustion as well as some family issues. This is not an example to follow.
I’m trying to pace myself. There is, unfortunately, still a long road ahead. I try to take a walk (with my cat Tiger Babe) in my local park everyday—still wearing a mask if there are people around and practicing social distancing—no matter how busy I am and how I just want to finish reading one more article and writing one more paragraph. I don’t seem to be able to read anything these days unless it’s pandemic-related, but I can still enjoy a good film every now and then (at home, of course).
My mother has recently been hospitalized (for conditions unrelated to COVID-19), and caring duties have forced me to get away from my desk. As the virus continues its rampage across the globe, I’m connecting more with family, friends, and colleagues in all parts of the world. More and more people I know in the U.S. and U.K. are infected. My sister lives in New Jersey, right next to New York City (the “new Wuhan”). I just broke down in tears for the first time since the beginning of the epidemic—with sheer anger, fear, sorrow, and helplessness.
DAY 4: March 30, 2020
What are some of the most valuable lessons you have learned so far, in covering this pandemic?
Garcia de Jesus: Right now, I’d say the biggest lesson I’ve learned is that when covering a rapidly evolving event like this pandemic, it’s important to be open to new evidence and data, even if it goes against what I’d previously reported. Experts are continually learning new things about the virus; something that may have been true one week, might be contradicted the next. It’s best to follow the evidence and do the best I can to make sure my readers are well informed. We’re watching science happen in real-time—sometimes that involves conflicting information.
Branswell: The importance of testing. I’ve spent a lot of time over the years learning about vaccine development and the limitations therein. I know stuff about repurposing drugs and the use of convalescent plasma. But I’ve never really spent any time studying testing and how limited testing might have a huge impact in a pandemic. I guess I always assumed we’d be able to see the spread. But this virus can spread in the pre-symptomatic phase and maybe also from truly asymptomatic people. Not being able to see where the virus is spreading is creating nightmares for many countries.
- Test ideas as much as possible. If a doctor or scientist has a theory, find out what others who don’t know them think.
- Be very honest about what you don’t know. Be honest when you talk to doctors and scientists and then be honest when you write for readers. Three months into this pandemic there are fundamental questions we don’t have answers for.
- Before the pandemic, I had more time to work on stories, to try to craft the writing. In a pandemic people need good information as fast as they can get it. Accuracy is always the top concern, but this is a time when being first and being right matters a great deal.
- Have the confidence to guide editors when you think they’re looking in the wrong direction. By the same token, really listen to editors. Early on I listened to the experts who were saying they were more worried about seasonal flu. My editors thought COVID-19 was much more serious and they were right.
Qiu: The most valuable lesson I’ve learned is to take everything with a pinch of salt. I wasted a lot of time in the first couple weeks of my reporting of the epidemic by following and believing misinformation and disinformation circulating on the Chinese social media.
In such a complex and whirlwind incident, many people have responded to events hastily, especially on social media; there have been major errors in mainstream media (both in China and the West), often due to secondhand reporting without independent verification; and there has also been serious miscommunication at government levels about some of the grave issues crucial for containing the virus at an early stage. So critical thinking is key.
Another lesson is about how to prioritize workflow and not to get burnt out. It’s been really intense and fast-moving. It’s hard to keep up with everything all the time. I’ve never come across a situation in which our understanding of a new disease gets outdated on a daily basis. I haven’t been very good at focusing on getting one story done first before researching the others. I’ve been trying to have the big picture in mind by following the development on all fronts and ending up having multiple story ideas. But I would obviously not have the time and the energy to tackle one at a time. I’ve missed deadlines multiple times.
DAY 5: March 31, 2020
What tips do you have for other reporters covering COVID-19?
Garcia de Jesus: There’s a lot of uncertainty right now, with what we know about the virus itself, the disease it causes, how it spreads, the best ways to fight it—the list goes on. Be clear with your readers about what we do and don’t know, and any major caveats they need to be aware of when thinking about your story. Part of that comes down to talking to as many people as you possibly can. This particular virus has never infected people before the outbreak began, and there are only so many true coronavirus experts. The more voices you have telling you the same thing, the more confident you can be in your reporting.
Branswell: Be careful of studies that report on survivors shedding virus for days or weeks after infection, either from their throat or in stool. Likewise, be careful of studies that report finding virus on surfaces for long periods after one might hope they’d have been gone. (Case in point: The CDC study that showed evidence of virus on surfaces in the Diamond Princess 17 days after the ship was evacuated.)
It’s important to figure out how long people are infectious and how long infectious viruses survive on surfaces. But a lot of this work doesn’t tell us that. Many of the studies report on detecting virus fragments by PCR. That tells you someone is emitting something, or that a surface once was contaminated with viruses. It doesn’t tell you if there are actual “live” viruses (though viruses aren’t live) that can infect you on those surfaces or coming out of the former patient’s throat or in his or her stool. The tests could be detecting fragments of virus—viral debris—that isn’t infectious.
In order to know whether this stuff detected by PCR is actually a risk, scientists need to try to grow and “isolate” viruses from the swabs they take from the former patient’s throat, or from their stool or from the swabbed surfaces. Most studies don’t go this extra, time-consuming step. One (currently in preprint) that did, from a very good group in Germany, was not able to isolate virus from the throats of mild (that’s important) cases after Day 8. And while there’s been a lot of concern that people might be shedding infectious virus in stool, only one study so far (I don’t know the reference) has isolated virus from stool.
Another tip: Be careful interpreting the results of clinical trials of drugs being used to treat COVID-19. Some of the trials are small; some don’t have control arms, so they tell us virtually nothing. Many of the earliest trials have probably enrolled very sick patients; many of those may fail. That doesn’t mean the drug being tested has no action against the virus, but there could be a point where people are too sick to recover. Testing in patients who are not as far along could be much more elucidating. The trial published in the NEJM that showed lopinavir-ritonavir is a good example of this; the authors themselves feel further exploration of the drugs is merited, but in less severe patients. Lisa Jarvis had a terrific piece on this idea in Chemical and Engineering News.
Qiu: One tip about reporting such a rapidly evolving incident is to always communicate the caveats and uncertainties clearly and explicitly and to include as many perspectives as you can. In other words, be very clear what is known and what is known unknown.
It’s inevitable that we’d write about preprint studies. But be super selective and only cover those that are of high quality and wide implications. Send it to at least three top experts in the field to be sure it’s worth reporting. If you do write about it, be explicit that it has not been peer-reviewed and indicate the date it was posted online (which is important because our knowledge of the disease changes quickly).
Another tip is about research. It’s exhausting and overwhelming to keep up with the development of the pandemic. But I’ve made a point to myself to maintain a bird’s eye view of the situation globally no matter how busy I am. It’s probably quite old-fashioned, but I save all the papers and media reports. All the papers are time stamped, often sorted into different folders based on where it’s posted or published.
I also have a folder for each of the possible story ideas I have identified. When I come across relevant materials—papers, media reports, or social media—I’d save them in the appropriate folder. Moreover, I have a biweekly folder for news cuttings of more general interest. I save them as PDFs with file names clearly indicating the source of the reports. This would make it easy to search and locate at a later point.
- COVID-19 is a massive story. Look for the parts of the story that aren’t being covered or are being covered less.
- Read as many of the papers and preprints coming out on COVID-19 research as possible. Try to get a sense for the researchers who have the most promising ideas and insights. Be careful of speculation. It’s rampant now.
- Keep in mind that scientific papers and announcements are being made much faster now with far less vetting and peer-review. Explain what that means to readers. Don’t be afraid to explain the caveats; they’re important.
- Each morning ask yourself: What story would provide the best service to my readers? What do they most need to know? Sometimes what they need to know is that there is hope. Not blind faith but hope based on science.
Shira Feder is a New York-based writer currently covering health for Insider and a TON fellow sponsored by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. She covers science, culture, and everything in between. She has written for Vox, The Daily Beast, Huffington Post, and others. Follow her on Twitter @shirafeder.